Deadly Entente Setif striker Abdelmalek Ziaya will miss the second leg of the CAF African Confederation Cup final at Stade Malien on Saturday due to suspension.
The 25-year-old star of the Algerian club has scored 15 goals in as many cup ties, including a first-leg brace to give the 'Black Eagles' a 2-0 advantage over their Malian opponents. Coach Ali Mechiche says the absence of Ziaya, who has reportedly attracted attention from French Ligue I outfit Sochaux, will not hamper Entente as they seek a first African title in 21 years.
"The suspension of Abdelmalek will not change our game plan as there are equally good replacements available to me. We play as a team and do not rely on a single individual," he stressed to the Algerian media.
Though Ziaya must settle for a stand seat at a 50,000-capacity Bamako stadium, he has already created history in the second-tier African club competition by becoming the most prolific leading scorer. Setif will also miss goalkeeper Faouzi Chaouchi, France-born midfielder Mehdi Kacem and striker Rafik Bouderbal who were not registered in time for a competition that replaced the African Cup Winners Cup and CAF Cup five years ago.
Chaouchi became part of Algerian football folklore last month when he replaced suspended Lounes Gaouaoui for a FIFA World Cup™ play-off against bitter rivals Egypt and starred in a 1-0 Khartoum triumph. Cameroonian defender Francis Ambane, one of two foreigners in the Entente squad, is unperturbed by the absentees and believes they will collect the winners cheque.
"The first leg victory was a great morale boost for us and the team will defend doggedly to retain our advantage, but Stade are a strong side and we can expect an early onslaught," he warned. Although Malien remain underdogs as they seek to become the first club from the landlocked West African state to win an CAF club competition, 'The Whites' will draw hope from an impressive home record.
Of five victories, four were by two-goal margins, including a 4-2 win over ENPPI of Egypt, who inflicted the only home defeat on Entente during the competition. Stade hopes rest heavily on strikers Bakary Coulibaly and Ousmane Bagayoko, who shared the six goals in Cairo and Bamako that eliminated ENPPI in the semi-finals.
The pair have contributed 10 of the 18 goals scored by Malien, who came closest to African glory 44 years ago when defeated 2-1 by Oryx Douala of Cameroon in the first CAF Champions Cup final. "We regret the first leg loss and will go all out to make amends before our supporters. Our below-par performance in Setif was partly due to the cold weather," explained Coulibaly.
Apart from the prize money and prestige, whoever emerges victorious on goal aggregate come Saturday evening will book a place an African Super Cup date with CAF Champions League winners Mazembe in Lubumbashi next February. Previous winners of a competition modelled on the defunct European UEFA Cup include Hearts of Oak from Ghana, FAR Rabat of Morocco and Tunisian clubs Etoile Sahel and CS Sfaxien, the only side to successfully defend the title.